Taylor Mac’s “Lily’s Revenge”: A Flowery Adventure in Five-Part Harmony


Few performing artists can use a word like “pastiche” to describe their work and not incur the wrath of the pretentious police. When Taylor Mac uses the word, however, this actor-writer-director, critical darling and downtown doyen is clearly asserting a stake in its authenticity.

James Tigger Ferguson and Taylor Mac. Photo by Ves Pitts.
James Tigger Ferguson and Taylor Mac. Photo by Ves Pitts.

Indeed, at the crossroads of traditional theater and performance art, labels are a fungible commodity; rarely are they about only the work itself and not about the person as well. Labels get fused with buzzwords and grantspeak. The art and the artist become impossible to separate.

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But not for Mac — and yet it is so. Talking with him, it’s startling how much his analysis of his work isn’t about himself. Yet he openly acknowledges how much he serves as his own source material, his own minefield of investigation.

Mac’s particular and peculiar blend of approaches and disciplines (he’s also a songwriter, visual artist and political activist) frequently results in an orgy of opposites and apposites. This is the essence of the Mac pastiche.

To clarify this, here are some excerpts from the artist statement Mac has posted on his website:

….I’m a playwright, an actor, songwriter, director, visual artist, and activist. I…sometimes squish all of these hats together and come up with what most people in academic circles would call a postmodern theatric (meaning I draw from many sources, throwing high and low art forms together, juxtaposing ideas and images to create new meanings).

Imagery plays a huge part in all of my pastiches. My aesthetic comes from a technique I’ve been developing for a number of years: I pick a topic, e.g. “The War on Terror” and write down all of the things I feel about it: anger, frustration, sadness, ironic amusement, among others. I’ll explore how the topic is messy, exact, demonstrative, hopeful, chaotic, controlled, feminine, masculine, ugly, and beautiful. Using this list I then create a “look” that encompasses all the descriptions at the same time. A set piece or dress may be a jagged-sparkling-frayed-flowing-gorgeous-organized mess. If it is a dress, I make sure, when wearing it, that the look acknowledges I am both masculine and feminine. My hair and makeup will also reflect the myriad of impressions: perfect glittering lips accompanied by a matted wig and didactic eyeliner. Deliberately “squashing” these elements together, I (and/or my performing collaborators) become a heightened, theatrical, and physical expression of the topic.

….Through this technique I’m able to present the audience with an exploration from all angles. They are given a multifaceted experience. The result becomes, (no matter the original topic) a response to homogeneity and a celebration of variance.

Speaking personally, I came late to the Mac train: The Young Ladies Of…, a rhapsody and paean to his father but also a peace process with his own sense of gender and sexual orientation, was first work of Mac’s that I wrote about.

His newest project is The Lily’s Revenge, a five-part epic that is, per publicity materials, “part Noh play, part verse play, part vaudevillian theatric, part installation, part puppet theater and part dance.” Structurally, five parts makes it very Noh. In conversation, Mac describes how, between each play, Kyogens — compact, comical bits functioning as light intermissions and entertainments — are performed. The storyline of the piece itself trades on the flora and fauna of fantasy: the quest of a flower to become a man (in order to wed his bride). For better or for worse, the flower lands amidst a revolution of flowers meaning to destroy the god of Nostalgia, their oppressor. The Lily’s Revenge takes its cue from Mac’s enduring interest in (and perhaps obsession with) homogeneity. The idea of the piece, its vibe, sounds like a rejection of conformity, a bearing arms against sameness, a plaint for our ever-stripped individuality.

The Lily’s Revenge runs through Nov. 22 at Here Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave.), featuring six directors and more than 40 actors. For tickets to The Lily’s Revenge, call 212-352-3101 or click here.

Flower girls: Heather Christian, Ellen Maddow, Rae C Wright, Muriel Miguel, Tina Shepard
Flower girls: Heather Christian, Ellen Maddow, Rae C Wright, Muriel Miguel, Tina Shepard

Forgive me: Is this a Noh no-no?
Well, they usually do the plays in this order: deity play, ghost-warrior play, love play, living person or crazy person play and mad-demon play. When you read them, they all have to do with those themes — they’re not connected or all of one story but are different plays done over the course of five hours. Me, I kind of like to squish genres. So what I decided to do was one play, take the themes, and squish them into an Elizabethan structure: one play with five acts. Then we’re doing Kyogens, which are intermission performances between the acts. They’re performance art, cabaret, burlesque, videos and various installations or site-specific performances.

Can you walk me through what the play is about?
I wrote a play about a lily that goes on a quest. The lily falls in love with a woman and wants to become a man so he can wed her. In the process, the lily destroys the god of nostalgia — that’s the basic plot. What I’ve done — and this is more architecture — is I treated each act as a separate play and we have a different director for each act. Including the Kyogens, there are six directors. Each act is also a different style or form: the first, musical; the second, blank verse, rhyming and poetry; the third, dance theater; the fourth is film; and the final act is everyone and everything squished together.

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You cast size is gasp-inducing. How much doubling is there?
Everyone is in at least two acts. Then there are a few performers who are in more than just two — and the lily is in all five. Bianca Leigh, say, is in four out of five and there are a couple of people who are in three out of five.

To what degree, then, is putting Lily together about compartmentalizing? As the writer, do you have to compartmentalize how each director works? Do the performers have to do the same?
Everyone does work differently. For example, Faye Driscoll, the director-choreographer for the love act, which is part three, is supposed to be dance theater. I have never done a dance play before, never written one, although I have seen a bunch of them, so that was the most new thing for me. And I really think it was mutual: Faye hasn’t worked with text that much, so we really operated in tandem, me kind of helping out more with text, then she’d take over. I see myself as the artistic director of the show, a link between each act so there’s not too much repetition with ideas or too much of anything. In Faye’s case, she really will just take over and do everything. But then there will be something she won’t know about because, again, she hasn’t worked extensively with text, and we’ll both work with the actors to focus them.

Another aspect is Faye brings in all these ideas — she’s used to telling dancers what to do and they do it. That’s a little fantastic and thrilling because actors are so process-oriented; it becomes so different from other acts in which it’s all about “Let’s figure it out in the rehearsal room.” David Drake, who directs the final act, couldn’t do any “Let’s figure it out in the rehearsal room” because there are 36 people in the act and they’re all on various schedules. So when we get everybody there, you really just have to tell everyone what to do. And that’s slightly different from the second act, which is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who’s all about “Let’s say the lines and understand what we’re saying.” So, yes, I have to change how I work with each person — I have to decide whether I’m going to talk a lot or not talk at all or if I’ll just be in the room as a playwright. Rachel’s really used to working with writers who are in their own plays, so she has a good technique of referring to you by what you’re doing: “Taylor playwright,” “Taylor producer,” “Taylor actor.”

Are all the directors talking to each other?
Yes — we’ve had meetings up the wazoo! And fortunately there’s one design team, which helps keep some of the chaos down, although it’s still very chaotic. I wanted this to feel like a community…

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When do you get to be Taylor Mac and not the messenger or communicator?
I am the passenger pigeon for this! Something happens in act one and it’s “Oh no, can we please keep that in because someone does the same thing in act three, so it will act as a mirror.” Some of the actors are helping do this as well. One will say, “Oh, we did this in this act.” David Drake came to a lot of the other rehearsals because he strongly felt that his job, being the final-act director, was to tie everything up, to use what other people have done and bring it all together. He’s used certain movement things, actor choices — and the script has changed. I’ll be like, “I got to rewrite that part of act three!”

How does the rewriting process, especially on something like The Lily’s Revenge, work for you?
Well, today I changed a word. I changed it because one problem I have is that people don’t say each other’s names too often in real life. In the theater, you have to know who’s talking, but I find it so annoying. So I wrote all these lines with Lily, Lily, Lily, Lily, Lily — it was driving me insane. Today I said, “Can we cut a few of these and see how that works?”

And then I’ve been — well, the poor actors in act two! They’ve been so game to get new pages at every rehearsal, with things rearranged, reshuffled and rewritten. When I rewrite, I tend to rewrite in a major way. This play started off at 240 pages and now it’s 160 pages, so I’ve been making lots of cuts. Act one is in verse, all in poetry, and so often you have to change a whole paragraph to make all the scansion work. I’m constantly rewriting, Luckily, I just have a lovely cast that isn’t too bent out of shape to just jump right in.

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TheYoung LadiesOfLet’s talk about your own performance work. So much is almost made of your external appearance in pieces like The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac and The Young Ladies Of… Just your makeup invites a response that’s visceral, almost critical. What’s the process by which you decide how to look?
For Young Ladies… and Be(A)st and The Face of Liberalism, my solo kind of shows, and to some degree with Lily and Red Tide Blooming, my more theatrical-ensemble shows, I tend to think about what it is that I’m trying to say and how I can create a physical manifestation of it. If I’m talking about the desire to be loved, then I’m going to want a stream-of-conscious writing session where I’ll write down everything that looks like wanting to be loved to me. How do I feel about wanting to be loved? What does that look like? A ball of string falling out of a room — pretty soon there’s a wig that gets made out of string. It’s not supposed to be literal and the audience is not supposed to get it when they look at it. My agent and my dramaturg said “Give the audience a little more information about why you look the way you do.” We did with The Young Ladies Of…; sometimes I agree. Sometimes I think it’s okay to be confused. I like that they’re trying to figure it out.

That’s a little Brechtian, though, isn’t it? A little alienating?
What I feel is that the more personal I can be, the more the audience will relate to it. I don’t feel like, when I put on my costume, I’m hiding, that I’m wearing a mask. I’m exposing more being as ugly, beautiful, graceful, chaotic, masculine, feminine I can be. When I’m wearing my jeans and t-shirt on stage, I’m doing it to blend in. In my theatrical garb, that is look on the inside. I’m always trying to create a look of what I look like on the inside so when people see it, they do have an emotional response. Sometimes it scares them. Sometimes it makes them angry, overjoyed — sometimes they feel all those things. But the idea is to surprise the audience, to get them to feel.

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What’s the goal of the theater you do?
Going to the theater is about practicing your emotions. You do it so that when something like 9/11 happens, you know what it’s like to be angry, to be afraid, so you don’t act irresponsibly. Otherwise 9/11 happens and no one has any kind of experience. I think one of the artist’s jobs is to allow people to practice their emotions so, when emotions happen in the world outside of art, people are able to understand their emotions more.

I have to ask you a practical question. In The Ladies Of… — all those envelopes! Those hundreds of sealed envelopes tumbling all over you! Where did they all come from? How many were there?
There were 20,000. My poor stage manager, Ann, was such a trouper. Oftentimes audience members would come and they’d talk and help clean up, which was very dear. When I’m touring I have a lot more support because presenting houses have their staffs.

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